The fight for lost pay after years of wage theft

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Together with attorney Danielle Lang (R), Maria Vasquez (L) went to the Labor Commission to file a claim. But, nearly a year after her case was heard by the Labor Commission, Maria Vasquez has yet to receive a penny of the wages she says she was owed. Photo: George Lavender

Los Angeles is “The Wage Theft Capital” of the country, according to a 2010 UCLA Labor Center report. The report found that across the city, workers in low-wage jobs are regularly being underpaid or not paid at all. Now, the city is looking to address that issue. When the minimum wage increase passed, the city also took the step of creating it’s own Wage Enforcement Office.

That won’t be soon enough for Maria Vasquez. For eleven years, Vasquez says she worked long hours cleaning, washing dishes, cooking, preparing food at Art’s Wings and Things, a fast food restaurant. She says often that work went unpaid; her boss, Arthur Boone, would sometimes say there just wasn’t enough money to pay her.

Wage theft can literally be an employer failing to pay their employees wages. But it also applies to other violations of labor law that mean an employee makes less than they are entitled to like failing to pay meal or rest breaks. Vasquez says that she regularly worked 80 hour weeks, but was never paid overtime.

Eventually Vasquez and four of her co-workers quit and went looking for help recovering the money they said they were owed. That’s when they met Danielle Lang, an attorney with Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Claiming back owed wages can take a long time, but Vasquez had an advantage: detailed notes of her hours and wages.

Her attorney, Danielle Lang, says she “shocked by the hours” Vasquez had been working, “but glad, as a lawyer, to see such good evidence”

Lang says wage theft is prevalent in the restaurant industry and that Vasquez’s case had a lot in common with others she’s seen; Vasquez was paid in cash and received no pay stubs. Last September, Vasquez’s case came before the labor commission.

Vasquez says she was nervous about facing her employer again, but on the day of the hearing he didn’t show up. Lang says that while some employers will come and try to defend themselves others “choose not to come to the hearing and then try and evade the liability.” Vasquez and her co-workers still had to prove that they were owed wages, but as Lang explains, in the absence of an employer’s records, “employees are free to prove their case with their memory alone.”

Vasquez and her co-workers won their case. The judgment found that she was owed $84,831.78. About half of that amount was for the wages, overtime, and meal and rest breaks her boss owed her, the other half were penalties for violating labor laws. She says that even though she knew she was being underpaid, the size of the amount surprised her.

Danielle Lang says that’s just for the last three years of her time working at Arts Wings and Things. Under the law that’s as far back as Vasquez was able to go in claiming wages and that if they could go back further “she’d be recovering a great deal more.”

The judgment in Maria Vasquez’s case came almost eleven months ago. But when she’s asked how much of that money she’s seen, Vasquez has a simple answer: “Nada, absolutamente nada.” Danielle Lang says they are still seeking enforcement of the judgment against Arthur Boone and Art’s Wings and Things, but Vasquez’s experience is not uncommon.

A report by the UCLA Labor Center found that across California, even among workers who win their cases at the Labor Commission just 17 percent ever recovered any of their wages. And as businesses change ownership or move around it can get harder and harder to pursue collections. In extreme cases sheriffs can literally take the money out of the cash register to pay back an employee.

Lang says that Los Angeles new Wage Enforcement Division is a step in the right direction. But it currently only has a budget for five investigators, far fewer than the number working in San Francisco, for a much bigger city. The LA council says it plans to increase those numbers in-line with the minimum wage hikes. All that will take time though.

Meanwhile, Maria Vasquez is still waiting for the money she’s owed. She hasn’t gone back to restaurant work since she left her job, instead she says she just about makes ends meet cleaning houses. She says that that she feels frustrated that while she has to face consequences for her actions, her former-employer has so far not had to pay anything.